Street art is a controversial topic; some view it as vandalism while others view it as craftsmanship. But instead of condemning the practice, perhaps New York City ought to take a few pointers from Los Angeles.
An increasing number of businesses in LA are reaching out to artists and asking them to create art that encourages people to stop and look—and maybe enter the shops and buy something. Yoga and spin studios, as well as bars and restaurants, are forming partnerships with artists to display their work commercially.
Outside the Line Hotel in Koreatown, for example, visitors can see the “Peace Tree” mural by Shepard Fairey (probably best known for designing to Barack Obama “Hope” poster). Gabriel Ratner, vice president of operations at Sydell Group, the hotel’s owner, is pleased with the reactions of the passers-by when they see the mural.
“People stop by to grab a photo and then end up coming into the hotel lobby for a cup of coffee or a cocktail,” said Ratner.
As Ratner noted, these partnerships are particularly effective in the age of social media, when plenty of tourists want to get a selfie and post it on Instagram or other social media platforms.
The relationship between street art and Los Angeles has a somewhat checkered past. In 2002, even as businesses hired artists to turn brick walls into billboards, the city banned murals on private property as part of an effort to cut down on street art that was just commercial advertising in disguise. The City Council ultimately lifted the ban in 2013—with the caveat that murals couldn’t contain any commercial messaging.
Of course, there are philosophical complications as well, even now. Street art is an offshoot of graffiti, which is all about counterculture and dissent—something street artists still hold onto today. For example, even though Fairey’s work is highly commercialized in some respects, his website proudly proclaims that he has been “manufacturing quality dissent since 1989.” So if street artists are being paid for their work, does that somehow detract from the outsider mentality of the modality’s origins?
Leaving aside the ideology of whether or not artists deserve to be paid for their work (spoilers: they absolutely do), the question of commercialization troubles many street artists, including Colette Miller. Miller has produced some of the most popular LA backdrops on social media today. Her Global Angel Wings 2012 project began as an illegal mural painted in the Arts District in 2012. After her initial success, she started accepting some commissions for offshoot work, including from businesses.
“I know people are trying to make money off my art,” Miller told The LA Times. “But the goal of the wings is to remind people that we are angels of the earth. Whether it’s in a mall, prison, or hospital, it doesn’t matter. We’re divine souls wherever we are, so why be snobby?”
Miller does have her limits, however. When Angel City Brewery commissioned her to paint a set of wings on their building, she agreed—until she returned to find that the company had added its own branding to her work. “This isn’t an advertisement, it’s an experience,” Miller said.
Wherever you stand on the idea of the commercialization of street art, the fact is that it’s a movement continuing to grow in LA—in large part to the opportunities offered by area businesses.